Review: The Phantom of the Opera – Empire Theatre (Toowoomba)

Image: Empire Theatre

A disclaimer up front – I’m currently serving on the Foundation of the Empire Theatre and am a former Board member. If, then, you think the following should be taken with a grain of salt, so be it!

Theatre, oh theatre, how I love you in all your moods and guises. I’ve been in love with you for many years – too many to recall – and I’ve never lost the excitement and the anticipation of the magic that is made present from talent, sweat and tears. A group of strangers come together to experience something only fully realised in the dynamic of a single moment of pure community.

The theatre is also powerfully transformative of individuals and communities small and large. Playwright Arthur Miller once noted that the theatre is the place where strangers come together in a civilising act as important as road and bridge building. Maybe it’s because of the power theatre holds that, throughout history, it’s been one of the first agencies to be closed down by repressive regimes. Individuals and communities can be changed – are changed – when they come together to be refreshed and renewed, to be inspired, to laugh, to weep, and to think out loud in front of themselves – that last one from Martin Esslin, another great of the theatre. This communing was something I experienced afresh last Thursday night at the opening of the Empire Theatre’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe’s classic of the modern musical theatre, The Phantom of the Opera. The production is the biggest ever attempted by the Empire Theatre which, every year since 1999, has produced a community musical. These events are supported enthusiastically by the Toowoomba arts and business community – there’s that word again – and for good reason. They are high-profile, professionally-staged productions that use the glorious space that is the Empire Theatre. How lucky are we! I understand from the theatre management that tickets for The Phantom … are approaching the 8,000 sold mark. It’s a metric that they are proud of and, indeed, they should be. I’m imagining that it’s almost sold out as I write this. Word of mouth is it’s an unmissable show, and I have to agree.

There was a palpable air of pride on opening night at the pre-show, interval and after-show receptions in the restored Church Theatre that snuggles up beside the ‘big house’ auditorium. By the way, the brand-new Toowoomba Regional Arts Community Centre – known as TRACC – which has been fully-funded by the efforts and the open wallets of local people – is in construction beside the Church. There’s community in action for you. By the way, those who are considering these things, I do hope you come up with a better-sounding and more appropriate name than TRACC. A competition maybe?

The other reason we’re proud up here of what the Empire Theatre provides is the opportunity for arts access via the slew of community arts projects it sponsors: for those who love performance and learning from some of the best mentors and teachers; for those developing their skills and beginning their careers; for the further professional development it provides to local artists and creatives, and for those who just get a kick out of their ‘annual  holiday’ at home but in another world – that of the theatre, our theatre and in this town. There’s nothing quite like excellent community theatre, and that excellence comes from encouragement and especially from material, monetary and moral support.

And so there I was on Thursday night surrounded by a full-house of first-nighters composed of my community and some out of towners – all lovers of theatre and supporters of something we value enormously – and in acknowledgement of guest-director and designer John Senczuk‘s production of The Phantom of the Opera.  It is beautifully designed and staged, and the experienced and very sure hand of Mr Senczuk, aided by assistant designer Mary Quade, is at work in every scenic detail – from colour-ways, costume designs, and the rhythm and energy of set changes and cast movements on and off stage.

Lighting Designer Timothy Panitz and Sound Designer Steve Alexander lead their teams in defining and amplifying the worlds of 1919 and 1875 Paris – in the corridors, rooms, stage and roof of the Paris Opera House and the underground lair of the Phantom. I felt for the first time that the scope of the stage and the ways and means of the Empire’s superb technical facilities were utilised fully. Gotta love imaginative staging with a fly-tower and a revolve at your disposal, and techs and mechs who know how and love to drive their toys!

Completing the creative leadership of the production are Lorraine Fuller and Alison Vallette as (respectively) Musical Director and Choreographer and Arthur Johnson as vocal coach – all highly-regarded and experienced local artists. Ms Fuller’s baton and reassuring leadership in the pit gave full throat to Lloyd Webber’s terrific music. Yes, we did resist singing along but how good to hear that well-known score swell out LIVE.  It was a terrific sounding accompaniment to the singing and dancing.  Ms Vallette has choreographed dance and movement sequences which range from modern-feeling routines (‘Masquerade’) through to classical ballet, and they are artistically and technically spot on. By the way, I loved the cheeky Degas referencing in the large painting that dominates the dance-class sequences. The artist himself could be seen at work in some of the scenes! Nice touch Mr Senczuk!

And the big cast? Brendon Walmsley, who is known to many as a professional singer of country and western music, is impressive in a cross-over musical theatre role as the Phantom. His interpretation of the lyrical musical lines is not as romantic as those of  ‘other Phantoms,’ especially in the by now familiar recorded versions, but it is individual and gutsy and his! He is no slouch in the acting stakes either – there is no doubting his love and anguish for Christine, and Mr Walmsley really does know how to take and dominate the stage when he needs to. I hope we see more of his musical theatre work in the future. Lisa Skerman, like many on stage in this production, is a veteran of the Empire stage at the ripe old age of 20-something. Her performance as Christine Daae is a breakthrough and a revelation; the audience fell in love with her vulnerability from the start. From the first note of the fiercely difficult ‘Think of Me’ audition song, Ms Skerman stamps her authority on the role and leads the way.  Zachary Denman looks, sounds and performs equally confidently, and in top form as Christine’s childhood friend and lover Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, while Cherie Vera who sings like a dream, is also a delightfully preposterous opera diva Carlotta Guidicelli, aided and abetted by the comic trio of Robert D Williams, Jon Maskell, and Nick Kirkup.

Look, some of the acting is uneven at times and the tempo could pick up here and there as the cast come and go; these are often a function of not enough full runs before opening night. The few bumps and mis-timed cues between lighting and set changes on opening night will, by now, have resolved themselves, I have no doubt. However, it’s a terrific production. The Phantom of the Opera at the Empire Theatre is playing a short-ish season which ends next Sunday, but an additional performance has been scheduled for Thursday. If you are a local and haven’t seen it, or considering coming up the hill to experience our town for yourself, try to get a ticket. I doubt you will be disappointed. We’re proud of our community. Good job, Empire Theatre and all who perform in you.